Jane Goodall on her life, her work and the future of the planet

The renowned 85-year-old anthropologist talked to CBC Radio's In Town and Out prior to an event in Ottawa Friday night.

85-year-old anthropologist was in Ottawa this past week

Dr. Jane Goodall, one of the world's foremost conservation experts, was in Ottawa this weekend for a public lecture. (Trevor Pritchard/CBC)

Over the past 50 years, Jane Goodall has revolutionized our understanding of chimpanzees, their behaviour, and the common ground they share with humans.

She's published more than 20 books, founded the eponymous Jane Goodall Institute, and opened Africa's largest chimpanzee and rehabilitation centre.

Goodall was in Ottawa last week for a string of events to raise funds for her institute. On Friday, In Town and Out guest host Jessa Runciman sat down with the renowned primatologist and anthropologist prior to a speaking event at Meridian Theatres.

Their conversation is below. It's been edited for length and clarity.

When you first arrived in [Tanzania], you were in your 20s. No experience, no university education, just a love of animals and a desire to learn. How much do you still relate to that Jane decades later?

Well, the recent [National] Geographic documentary "Jane" took me right back. It's the only one that's taken me right back into that 26-year-old's skin, and it was really nostalgic because those chimpanzees were like part of my family. It just brought those days back so vividly.

You know, [those are] days that have now gone. But during those days, I learned so much about chimpanzee behaviour.

What would you say to your younger self, if you could offer a word of advice?

If I could talk to that Jane, I wouldn't advise her on anything, because for better or worse, everything I did came out to the right conclusion.

I think to have given that young Jane any advice at all would have been a big mistake.

Jane Goodall was 26 when she embarked on her long-term chimpanzee study in Gombe Stream National Park, Tanzania. Goodall later turned her efforts to conservation of chimpanzees and their habitats across Africa. (JGI U.S./National Geographic)

People sort of take it for granted now that you gave these chimpanzees names — like Flo and Mr. McGregor and Flint — but that wasn't commonplace at the time, and animals were referred to by numbers. How far have we come since then in recognizing the consciousness and the personality of animals, particularly primates? 

We've come a long way, and it's not just primates. Yes, we're the most intellectual species that ever walked the planet, but at the same time we're finding out more and more about animal intellect. 

[There are] chimpanzees who can use computers. Chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans who can learn sign language, up to 400 signs. But we're also learning about the amazing intelligence of dolphins and elephants. 

We now know that birds like crows and parrots can do tasks — some tasks faster than seven-year-old humans. And now we know that pigs are as intelligent or more so than dogs. And if your listeners would like to Google "Pigcasso," they will have a lovely treat in store for them. 

We know how amazingly intelligent the octopus is — and they don't even have a normal brain, more like a central nervous system. We know that bumblebees can be taught to roll little beads into holes for rewards, and other bumblebees who haven't been taught could do the same thing just by watching the trained ones.

And we now know that trees can communicate with each other.

I wonder how watching chimpanzees over the decades has influenced the way that you watch humans?

I've spent a lot of time in airports and so on and I just love watching people. When I was doing my PhD, when I finally got to Cambridge, I was working opposite a children's playground. I was learning a lot about children's play and [observing] little fights, aggression, crying, making up.

Was there ever a time when you were afraid of a chimpanzee? 

We have some who were bullies, like Frodo, and he would charge me, drag me, stamp on me. He's about 10 times stronger than me.

Luckily, while he was actually doing these things, [it was] just because he wanted to show off and prove he was dominant.

 I was so mad at him. I'd be thinking, don't do this, I completely know that you are stronger than I am. He could so easily have killed me, and if he'd wanted to, I wouldn't be here now. But he was only showing off.

Renowned researcher Jane Goodall, shown here at an Australian zoo in 1997, says that instead of slowing down her work, she's speeding up — because she knows she can't do it forever. (Megan Lewis/Reuters)

We're having this conversation while young people around the world are calling for stronger action around climate change. What's your message to people, especially young people, who want to make a difference but they feel like what they're up against is so big?

I was meeting so many young people who seemed not to have much hope. This was back in the 90s, and they said to me, "We feel hopeless because you've compromised our future and there's nothing we can do about it." 

We have indeed compromised their future. We've stolen it, or we're still stealing it today. But we're realizing there is a lot we can do, this is a window of time, and that's when I began our Jane Goodall Institute Roots and Shoots program, which is now in some 60 countries. 

Ever since 1991, we've been encouraging young people to take action to help people, animals, and the environment. The awareness has been growing. I've been traveling 300 days a year giving lectures. Other people have taken up the cause.

So right now we've reached a point when the awareness is at a peak. The young people are ready to go and march, [and] as long as they take action themselves as well, it's fantastic.

Dr. Jane Goodall, one of the world's foremost conservation experts, speaks with In Town and Out guest host Jessa Runciman ahead of a public talk in Ottawa on Sept. 27, 2019. (Trevor Pritchard/CBC)

Do you foresee a day when you're going to want to slow down?

 I'm 85, closer to 86. And people say, 'Well, why don't you slow down?" But I have to speed up. Because I know there's going to be a time when I can't do it anymore. 

I wouldn't do it if it didn't make an impact. But [then] everybody comes up and tells me, "I'm going to do my bit. You've given me hope. You've inspired me to take action."

I have to go on because if we don't all get together, and soon, it's going to be too late.

One day the institute is going to go on without you. What do you want that to look like?

I sincerely hope decades from now we won't need an institute, but we probably will. 

I hope it grows. We have got 35 chapters around the world. I hope that in every country there are Roots and Shoots groups. And I hope that we're still raising money to help people in developing countries, to help people living in poverty to get good educations and help themselves rise out of poverty.

Out of everything you have accomplished, what are you most proud of?

Two things,  actually.

One is starting the Roots and Shoots movement and empowering millions of young people. We've got all those who've been through it and they still maintain the values.

Secondly, helping science to be less reductionist in its thinking about animals. Science just had to admit that we humans are not the only beings with personalities, minds and emotions.